Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is currently considering signing a bill that will allow state welfare recipients to use community service participation — in addition to other activities — to maintain their welfare eligibility. Already suffering at the hands of a difficult job market, allowing welfare recipients another option to extend their welfare benefits helps alleviate the situation. Welfare programs not only offer financial assistance, but encourage job training programs that help welfare recipients who are unemployed to develop the necessary skills to successfully reenter the workforce. Snyder should sign the legislation to help people on welfare maintain their benefits and continue their job training.

Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, most recipients are required to work in order to receive federal cash assistance, though factors such as age and medical condition may excuse certain recipients from these “work for welfare” requirements. Michigan Senate Bill 276, approved by the state House last week, would simply allow the act of community service to fulfill the Department of Human Services’ work requirements. As a supplement to Michigan’s welfare-to-work program, recipients can participate the in Partnership, Accountability, Training and Hope program which requires individuals seeking welfare to participate in a three-week assessment of their personal employment barriers and help find some form of permanent employment.

Including community service as an option provides an additional alternative for recipients to maintain their welfare eligibility. Michigan’s Department of Human Services has said the bill wouldn’t force welfare recipients to perform community service. Instead, if welfare recipients — for whatever reason — are unable to fulfill the other welfare requirements, community service can serve as a final resort to maintain eligibility.

The community service option allows people to stay on welfare, which not only assists them financially, but also gives them access to services to prepare them for the future. Currently, the state sponsors a program called PATH. The program is comprised of a “21-day assessment period during which barriers to employment are identified and caseworkers work individually with clients to connect them with resources to address these barriers.” Thus, those on welfare can receive state-provided assistance in finding a job and working on their weakest areas. Providing this will help people when finding long-term jobs and, hopefully, help them leave the welfare program permanently.

While this is a necessary first step, there is a larger issue at play. Working full time — without welfare benefits — does not guarantee that the worker will be able to support themselves or their families. The minimum wage in Michigan is $7.40 per hour and isn’t tied to inflation. The living wage for a single parent with two children is $22.34. The difference between what individuals need to earn and what employers actually pay creates the need for programs like PATH and the welfare system in general. Finding a way to reduce this wage gap would decrease the need for supplemental programs by improving the wage-earning potential of those in low-paying jobs.

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